Michael Isikoff

Stories by Michael Isikoff

  • Terror Watch: Spooked?

    CIA Director George Tenet's sudden resignation comes on the eve of two reports on the agency's pre-war intelligence
  • Prison Scandal: Brooklyn's Version Of Abu Ghraib?

    Even as the Pentagon seeks to quell the furor over Abu Ghraib, the Justice Department is trying to make sure a similar scandal doesn't erupt closer to home. At issue: more than 300 hours of secret videotapes from a U.S. prison facility in Brooklyn, N.Y., where many Arab and Muslim detainees were incarcerated in the months after 9/11. On the tapes, according to a report by federal investigators, prison guards slam inmates into walls, twist their arms and wrists and subject them to humiliating strip searches in which, in some cases, male prisoners were forced to stand naked in the presence of female guards; in others, prison guards "laughed, exchanged suggestive looks and made funny noises."The existence of the tapes was first disclosed late last year in a blistering report on conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn by the Justice Department's inspector general. But the tapes got little attention at the time, in part because only a handful of blurry stills from the...
  • Periscope

    Terrorism: A U.S. Link to Madrid? ...
  • An American Connection

    Hours after four railway bombs exploded in Madrid on March 11, killing 191 people, Spanish investigators got a big break. Early that morning, witnesses had seen three men in ski masks exiting a white van 20 miles from the blast. Inside the vehicle police found detonators, a stick of dynamite and a cassette tape of Qur'anic verses, the first sign that the bombing was the work of Islamic militants. But there was another piece of evidence in the van that Spanish authorities did not reveal: on a plastic bag containing bomb materials, investigators found a "perfectly formed" fingerprint they couldn't identify, a Spanish official told NEWSWEEK.Spanish police ran the print through their database of criminal suspects, but came up empty. So they turned to other countries, including the United States, for help. When the FBI ran the print through its archive, the computer unexpectedly logged a hit: the mystery print, U.S. authorities say, belonged to Brandon Mayfield, a small-time lawyer who...
  • Memos Reveal War Crimes Warnings

    The White House's top lawyer warned more than two years ago that U.S. officials could be prosecuted for "war crimes" as a result of new and unorthodox measures used by the Bush administration in the war on terrorism, according to an internal White House memo and interviews with participants in the debate over the issue.The concern about possible future prosecution for war crimes--and that it might even apply to Bush adminstration officials themselves--is contained in a crucial portion of an internal January 25, 2002, memo by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales obtained by NEWSWEEK. It urges President George Bush declare the war in Afghanistan, including the detention of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, exempt from the provisions of the Geneva Convention.In the memo, the White House lawyer focused on a little known 1996 law passed by Congress, known as the War Crimes Act, that banned any Americans from committing war crimes--defined in part as "grave breaches" of the Geneva...
  • 9/11 Commission: The Panel Tones It Down

    Fearing that their high-profile inquiry was being dragged into election-year politics, 9/11 commission chair Tom Kean and vice chair Lee Hamilton made powerful private pleas to fellow commissioners to tone down the rhetoric and avoid politically charged questioning, panel sources tell NEWSWEEK. Those entreaties were one reason last week's long-awaited showdown between the 9/11 panel and President Bush and Vice President Cheney was more muted than the commission's public sessions. After months of acrimonious wrangling, Bush quickly disarmed potential critics on the panel--by expressing chagrin over the Justice Department's release of documents intended to embarrass Democratic commissioner Jamie Gorelick. Later he joked with members; at one point the room erupted in laughter after Bush ribbed Bob Kerrey for leaving the session early for a previously scheduled meeting on Capitol Hill. ("Keep your spirits up, Bob!" Bush shouted as Kerrey left the Oval Office.)In between, Bush (who spent...
  • An American Connection?

    FBI agents today detained a Portland, Ore., lawyer after receiving evidence from Spanish authorities that the man's fingerprints allegedly were found on bomb-related evidence associated with the March 11 railway attack in Madrid that killed 191 people and wounded 2,000 people, NEWSWEEK has learned.The arrest of the lawyer was described by federal law-enforcement authorities as a major investigative breakthrough that for the first time suggests links between an individual inside the United States and the Madrid bombing.The man was identified as Brandon Mayfield, a convert to Islam who is tangentially linked to one of the chief defendants in the so-called "Portland Seven" case--a suspected terror cell in Oregon whose six surviving members pled guilty last year of plotting to fight for the Taliban against U.S. soldiers during the war in Afghanistan.Sources said that Mayfield had been under round-the-clock surveillance by the FBI for some time. According to law-enforcement sources, he...
  • Terror Watch: The Enemy Within

    How the Pentagon considered extending its controversial 'enemy combatant' label in a bid to prove links between Iraq and Al Qaeda
  • Terror Watch: What the PDB Didn't Say

    Perhaps George Bush would have paid more attention to the August memo if it had contained some of what was already known about Al Qaeda's activities
  • EXCLUSIVE: NEW QUESTIONS ABOUT SAUDI MONEY--AND B

    A federal investigation into the bank accounts of the Saudi Embassy in Washington has identified more than $27 million in "suspicious" transactions--including hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to Muslim charities, and to clerics and Saudi students who are being scrutinized for possible links to terrorist activity, according to government documents obtained by NEWSWEEK. The probe also has uncovered large wire transfers overseas by the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The transactions recently prompted the Saudi Embassy's longtime bank, the Riggs Bank of Washington, D.C., to drop the Saudis as a client after embassy officials were "unable to provide an explanation that was satisfying," says a source familiar with the discussions.A Saudi spokesman strongly denied that any embassy funds were used to support terrorism and said Bandar chose to pull the embassy's accounts out of Riggs. The Saudis point out that an earlier FBI probe into embassy funds...
  • A NEW WINDOW ON THE WAR ROOM

    The grainy photograph rolled off the fax machine at the White House counsel's office last Monday morning, along with a scribbled note that smacked of blackmail. If the White House didn't allow national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify in public before the 9/11 commission, it read, "This will be all over Washington in 24 hours." The photo, from a Nov. 22, 1945, New York Times story, showed Adm. William D. Leahy, chief of staff to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, appearing before a special congressional panel investigating the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. PRESIDENT'S CHIEF OF STAFF TESTIFIES read the headline over the snapshot of Leahy's very public testimony. The point was clear: the White House could no longer get away with the claim that Rice's appearance would be a profound breach of precedent.The fax was the work of Philip Zelikow, the commission's executive director, a University of Virginia historian who had been poring over records of the Pearl...
  • Terror Watch: Tangled Ties

    Within weeks of the September 11 terror attacks, security officers at the Fleet National Bank in Boston had identified "suspicious" wire transfers from the Saudi Embassy in Washington that eventually led to the discovery of an active Al Qaeda "sleeper cell" that may have been planning follow-up attacks inside the United States, according to documents obtained by NEWSWEEK.U.S. law-enforcement officials familiar with the matter say there is no evidence that officials at the Saudi Embassy were knowingly financing Al Qaeda activity inside the country. But documents show that while trying to trace a tangled money trail beginning with the Saudi Embassy, investigators soon drew startling connections between a group of Saudi nationals receiving financial support from the embassy and a 34-year-old microbiologist and MIT graduate who officials have since concluded was a U.S. operative for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.The microbiologist, Aafia Siddiqui, a mother of three young...
  • Terror Watch: Shut Out?

    It's not clear why Spain ignored the FBI's offer to help investigate the Madrid bombings. but the decision could affect U.S. efforts to roll up terror networks in Europe
  • INTERVIEW: 'I'M IN PERFECT HEALTH'

    It has been a subject of passionate interest for John Kerry throughout his Senate career. But the Democratic presidential front runner has not spoken publicly about his own brush with Agent Orange in Vietnam until now. He talked with NEWSWEEK's Michael Isikoff by phone from the campaign trail. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK: How cognizant of [Agent Orange] were you at the time?KERRY: When I was in my first missions in the south of Saigon in a place called the Rung Sat zone--God, the whole damn thing was probably just completely defoliated because that was the area where the ships were going into Saigon. And then there were just lots of individual areas in the peninsula that were defoliated. I really didn't think twice about it, to be honest with you. Not then I didn't. But then we got back here and we all became aware very quickly of this word Agent Orange and what it was and so forth.I want to read a quote that Wade Sanders told us and get your thoughts. "Agent Orange exposure was just part of...
  • THE WHITE HOUSE: A NEW FIGHT OVER SECRET 9/11 DOC

    The White House is facing a new battle with the federal panel investigating 9/11. To mollify the panel chair, former governor Thomas Kean, President George W. Bush last week reversed course and agreed to a two-month extension that is supposed to ensure a final 9/11 report by July. But that might not be enough. Commission sources tell NEWSWEEK that panel members are fed up with what one calls "maddening" restrictions by White House lawyers on their access to key documents. Unless the panel gets to see the docs, the report "will not withstand the laugh test," a commission official says. The panel is threatening to force a showdown soon--by voting to subpoena the White House.The documents at the heart of the dispute are the so-called presidential daily briefs, or PDBs--the daily intelligence brief given to Bush by a senior intelligence official, usually the CIA director or his deputy. White House lawyers have guarded the documents as the "crown jewels" of executive privilege. But last...
  • Terror Watch: Bad Sourcing

    U.S. agencies may have relied on fabricators and Saddam's own spies for intelligence on Iraq
  • CASH AND KERRY

    John Kerry needed cash, and soon. In July 1996 the Massachusetts senator was locked in a tough re-election fight, so he was more than happy to help when he heard that a generous potential contributor wanted to visit his Capitol Hill office. The donor was Johnny Chung, a glad-handing Taiwanese-American entrepreneur. Chung brought along some friends, including a Hong Kong businesswoman named Liu Chaoying.Told that Liu was interested in getting one of her companies listed on the U.S. Stock Exchange, Kerry's aides immediately faxed over a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The next day, Liu and Chung were ushered into a private briefing with a senior SEC official. Within weeks, Chung returned the favor: On Sept. 9 he threw Kerry a fund-raiser at a Beverly Hills hotel, raking in $10,000 for the senator's re-election campaign.In a 30-year career untainted by scandal, Kerry's encounter with Chung and Liu would turn into a political embarrassment. Federal investigators later...
  • Terror Watch: Another Halliburton Probe

    Already under fire for its contracts in Iraq, the company now faces a Justice Department inquiry about business done during Dick Cheney's tenure
  • Terror Watch: Error in Judgment

    A Senate report says the CIA is to blame for bad intelligence on Iraq. Critics say there's a whitewash underway. Here's the full story.
  • SEPTEMBER 11: WILL TERROR PANEL'S REPORT BE AN EL

    A new political battle is brewing over the federal panel investigating the 9/11 terror attacks, NEWSWEEK has learned. Facing a May deadline that many members no longer think they can meet, the panel is weighing asking Congress for more time to prepare its report. Some members want a few extra months--which would push back its release into the summer. But the prospect of unleashing the report in the middle of the election season is creating anxiety inside the White House. Some aides fear that the document will contain fresh ammo for Democrats eager to prove Bush was inattentive to terrorism warnings prior to 9/11. As a result, Bush officials recently floated a surprise strategic switch: they might OK a delay, but only if the report were put off until December, thereby "taking it out of the election," said a commission source. Late last week, though, the White House told the commission it was sticking with its longstanding position of no give on the May deadline.If the commission has...
  • DEAN: BETTER CALL YOUR LAWYER

    When pressed on why he refuses to release a large chunk of his records as Vermont governor, Howard Dean has a standard response: he's being sued over the issue by a Washington watchdog group, so he's leaving the entire matter up to the Vermont courts, where a judge can decide which documents can be released. "Why can't a judge look at every single piece of paper and make that decision?" Dean asserted during a debate in Iowa. But Dean's explanation has drawn a demurral of sorts from a surprising source: his own lawyer in the case. Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, a longtime Dean ally, told NEWSWEEK, "I wouldn't quite agree" with Dean's analysis. In court papers, Sorrell--on behalf of Dean and the state--isn't asking for a Vermont judge to review all the records. He is asking the judge to toss out the lawsuit and declare all 146 boxes of sealed records barred from disclosure on the ground of "executive privilege." Sorrell said Dean's records "are not his personal property any...
  • Terror Watch: No More Orange, Yellow and Red?

    Some legislators and intelligence analysts believe that the color-coded terror alerts may be having perverse effects on both the American public and Al Qaeda. Plus: a trial for captured 9/11 plotters may be getting closer.
  • Presidential Powers

    The White House was repeatedly warned by senior lawyers that it was facing a major legal setback if it persisted with claims that the president was empowered to indefinitely lock up U.S. citizens as "enemy combatants" without access to counsel or a right to trial. Those warnings were borne out Dec. 18 when a U.S. court of appeals panel in New York ruled that "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla was being held unconstitutionally and should be released from a military brig. White House officials vowed to appeal. But some administration insiders said the fallout from the Padilla ruling could be far-reaching--and that it vindicated doubts expressed by some White House and Justice officials about the administration's tough stand. "This is worse than what we feared," says one who worked on the case.Sources tell NEWSWEEK that debates within the administration over the Padilla case were far more intense than has been publicly acknowledged. Padilla, a onetime Chicago gang member who converted...